25 January, 2015

Je Suis Charlie Hebdo

The vision I have of the world I want to live in includes a huge amount of ideas, a perpetual battle of words, the vast majority of which I am going to find at least wrong and often morally unpalatable, but which ultimately are going to lose, because I live in a liberal democracy and the best ideas will win. So often politicians and journalists scramble to blame the victims for the acts of violence committed against them, which helps to pour ice into a chilling effect far beyond the handful of people targeted and hurt and killed directly. Even now, despite the march (which helpfully included amongst its number numerous despots who have whittled or crushed the right to object), the banners, the demonstrations, there's a willingness to mutter about irresponsible use of free speech, of somehow abusing it from all sorts of quarters. We are told to respect the religious beliefs of others and we are told that we are provoking violence when we do not.

I find it a struggle to heap anything but scorn and mockery on, for instance, a man who has never known romance yet professes the belief that gay marriage threatens traditional families; who has as much respect for gay families as I do for bigots. Such posturing about how we should love ideas no matter how harebrained or dangerous or horrific they may be gets us nowhere; certainly the sort of people who speak about the inherent dignity of belief lack any such restraint and tolerance themselves. When we are diametrically opposed to a value or a belief or an epistemology then feigning respect under threat of violence is to palm off one's own rights and values through fear. I love people. Occasionally the things they say and do and believe are very evil indeed. Sometimes, as a salve for one's soul, or a hope for positive change in people's attitudes and beliefs, it is right and proper to ridicule such wickedness because it is so paltry and obtuse.

It is easy enough to shrug one's shoulders, perhaps, dismissing the satire of Charlie Hebdo as moving so far beyond the realms of good taste - or of tackling easy targets, for instance - that the crimes of the murderers are contextualised away or spoken of in a sympathetic, understanding tone. It is some fringe, brutish rag - who cares. It is easy enough, perhaps, to dismiss acts of murder as being provoked when some bigoted pastor who burns a holy book or a wally who makes a goofy and incoherent Youtube video are threatened and people assault and kill innocents in imagined retaliation, save some lip-service about how sad it was that those guiltless in the creation of the works were targeted. But it seems not to matter how noble your message, how savage or how mild your criticism, how tongue in cheek the insult, how accurate the point, or how dumb and silly and irrelevant your script for the accusation of provocation to be leveled - so how much do we cede on this front? Do we shrug our shoulders when it's Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a poignant, beautiful book about the strains of conflicting pressures on immigrants, in response to which the Ayatollah Khomeini - who we know had not even read the book - issued a fatwa, in due course of which at least one man - whose supposed crime was to translate the book into Japanese - was murdered? Do we shrug our shoulders when Theo van Gogh is murdered for creating a film about the violence enacted against and oppression of women in certain Muslim communities? Do we capitulate when it is a group of cartoonists living in fear of their life, when one is attacked in their home, when Dutch embassies are assaulted and burned, for engaging in parody and satire? The heads of nations call upon diplomats to apologise for violence enacted by their citizens, for the violation of the sanctity of embassies over the freedom of speech and of thought and of religion which in all other realms we rightly cherish so highly. The murderers who struck Charlie Hebdo were not incited to such violence by cartoons any more than Charles Manson was incited by the Beatles, nor more than journalists faithfully reporting on the Kent State shootings or the gunning down of unarmed black people by police officers should be held responsible for protesters erupting into violence. Murderous thugs are not rabid dogs unleashed by cartoons - no matter how zealously they may hold to their faith - but human beings with their own moral sense, however corrupt, violent, short-sighted and ignorant it may be.

Irreverence and mockery and meanness towards ideas and people and ideologies are part of the tapestry of the world I want to live in, even when it's misplaced, and wrong ideas should be fought solely with right ones because all knowledge is, in principle, tentative; no matter how passionately we believe, how strongly we feel, we could be wrong. Such an understanding hardly precludes us from conclusions - testing them is how we become more confident in them - but does mean that those who disagree with us should not be barred from having a voice, even if it is self-published, even if it has to be fought to be heard, even if it is socially and academically marginalised. The distinction between deliberately angering people and inciting violence is paramount - sometimes we should be made angry, sometimes it is powerful to make a point crudely, and we should be and we should feel free to spark such emotions because of the huge potential for positive change when we are made to view ourselves through other filters. It is not and should not be a crime worthy of death for a person to make a gesture of rudeness and meanness towards people and beliefs and books that they disagree with. This is everything this civilisation has become and every right and individual power this civilisation needs to flourish, the wellspring from which everything valuable about our culture flows, and rationalising away that knowledge because it is easy to dismiss the target of such opprobrium turned violent seems exceptionally myopic. I think it is right to stand shoulder to shoulder with Charlie Hebdo not necessarily because of the content of what they have said but because, and excuse a cliche here, their right to say it without fear is everything that makes us great.

I appreciate attempts, such as this, in the wake of the shootings, and the inevitable outpouring of violence against Muslims from bigots, to raise focus on different cruelties and horrors. And we must not forget them, or allow our hearts to harden against them out of simplistic nationalism or racism and visceral reaction to an attack on what feels like our home turf - yet so often it is an excuse for a tu quoque. The central problem of victim-blaming remains.

I am not terribly comfortable with what feels distinctly like an abstracting of terrorism away from what it is and does. There is a treatment that it is a grand coincidence that cartoonists were targeted - were marched out, name by name, and then shot - and that we should instead consider the act in terms of imperialism and colonialism and war. The attack was not about free speech, we are told, at the same time that it is pointed out that Charlie Hebdo's caricatures tend to be problematic at best (and falsely told that they are part of the forces which subjugate immigrants). The tendency to agree with the justifications offered by mass murderers is, to put it mildly, somewhat sinister. It is to accept the pro-offered and absurd suggestion that we are part of a war of cultures, where western civilisation faces down Islam. The magazine attacked had no arms, threatened no lives, took no hostages, invaded no nations, is not even a standard bearer for such things - Charlie Hebdo is anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-war - and so such posturing falls rather flat. The mosques which are attacked in supposed retaliation for the murders have no arms, threaten no lives, took no hostages, invaded no nations, frequently, publicly, stand against such things - although it hardly matters if they do not - and both mosques and juvenile comics are part of the tapestry of our nations.

When a skinhead burns down a mosque, when a government enacts some backwoods law banning non-existent minarets, or some petty law barring some aspect of freedom of expression and religion, when a Sikh man is assaulted and abused because a turban is sufficiently foreign looking to the sort of person who does such things should we give in to the same inclination to say, well, come on now, look at the context - look at the horrors enacted in those nations, those theocracies where Islam has temporal power, where violence is enacted by Muslims against other Muslims, against former Muslims, against religious minorities. I'm not justifying the violence of the bigot, oh no, just providing some context, some understanding of why violent awful people do violent awful things, by telling you how they justify it. Here is the context, the understanding of such arguments: it is the same banal, absurd tribalism, the same belief in collective guilt and collective punishment required to conduct such atrocities in the first place. 

Imperialism and colonialism are dread evils which have fractured societies, ruptured and pooled power into the hands of cruel and stupid dictators and stolen the wealth of entire peoples. Also, some men with guns shot some cartoonists in Paris the other day because they were really rude about Islam.

None should have to apologise for acts supposedly conducted in the name of their belief or ideology; we are not our brother's keeper. Pretending otherwise gets us to absurdities fast: are we to suppose all of Islam is somehow represented by the Kouachi brothers on that day or by Mssrs. Bathily and Merabet? It seems so banal, so obvious, and yet proves necessary to point out: how Islam is practised and understood differs dramatically from Turkey to Pakistan to Iran to Kosovo to Indonesia to New York to the West Midlands to Paris, and within these communities there is dramatic variation, even where it is not legally permitted. Islam is not a monolith (although the worst elements in Islamic traditions desperately try to portray it that way, or enforce it under threat of violence and imprisonment) and the tendency to paint it in that fashion is not racism - should not be conflated with racism - but frequently tends into outright bigotry. A massive level of sophistication is warranted when speaking of a billion and a half people with such a ridiculously broad array of beliefs. Charlie Hebdo frequently fights on the side of angels - has frequently existed to mock the worst racial prejudices and facile anti-immigrant arguments of the far right; they have stood against oppression irrespective of whether it has been against immigration in their own country or against Palestinians in Gaza (their cartoons have been widely misrepresented in some Anglo outlets, see here and here for discussions of this) - yet, the criticism that the caricatures of Muslims remain racially charged holds water; they're shocking, they tap into racial prejudices and ideas as a shorthand in the way comics frequently do, and such a thing is problematic and troubling. But this notion that criticisms of Islam and Muslims are unnecessary or cowardly and are 'punching down' because French Muslims are a marginalised minority is hokum. Again, the idea rapidly gets us to absurdity: when protests against Israeli policy turn to the burning down of Jewish businesses and attacks on synagogues in Sarcelles, is it punching down to condemn the acts of people from one marginalised religious minority upon another marginalised religious minority? Is it punching down to talk about young girls from the families of expatriates who are spirited abroad so that their genitals may be mutilated? Or is it just to be consistent in one's values irrespective of who breaches them?

The completely accurate belief that religious minorities suffer oppression even in western liberal democracies, that they are frequently and unfairly blamed for social ills, that reactionary forces scapegoat them even as they expand the divide between us and those who wish to join us, does not mean we get to ignore the role religion and culture has to play in injustice. When women face subjugation in given Muslim communities and families, which occasionally seek to deny them education and other fundamental rights or force them out of the public sphere; when refugees flee the horror unleashed by Boko Haram only to face ridicule and dehumanisation and threats of violence from your own country's far right; when religions seek to suppress the rights of its citizenry and its residents through the machinery of the state; when you live under perpetual fear because criticising or satirising any of these things is all it takes for your life to be threatened, it seems evident that a lot of people confuse giving away everything you are for the reciprocal and mutual nature tolerance and respect must take if they are to have any meaning. The Islam which drives people to such extraordinary evil is not the same as that practised by the friends you live with, the family you have or the folks you go to work with, nor that of millions of others. They are no more responsible for such violence and suffering than I am of Stalin's purges or the Magna Carta. But we cannot hide our faces from the reality that the behaviour of zealots and bigots is so frequently religiously and culturally and politically driven. The drive to empathise with other people should not be a drive to conceptualise very real problems until they disappear.

The killing of 12 people by Islamist terrorists is, however, a small threat to French democracy and her freedom of speech; a week later the very magazine which was attacked responded with a cartoon of Muhammed. Terrorism is a minuscule threat: our values are so much more powerful than anything a terrorist can accomplish because the ideas underpinning liberal democracy are good, are moral, are useful, are right. They uplift us, they liberate us in ways our forebears could not have imagined, they give us luxury and eliminate want in ways unknown in history. Attacks, murder, threats, merely strengthen our resolveDeaths due to all armed conflicts have declined dramatically in recent years; people globally (not that it is of much help to those who live in specific, violent localities) and we in particular have less to fear from violence than ever before. Perhaps this makes it easier to understand the horror we feel from the dripping death toll caused by the constant, but ultimately low-intensity conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps, ultimately, it is why 9/11, and the July 7th bombings, and the Charlie Hebdo murders stand so stark.

But it's important to keep in mind that more women will be murdered by their boyfriends and husbands 
in the US this year alone than people have been killed by all known terrorist incidents in human history throughout the world. As awful as it is to be a victim of terrorism, you are far more likely to be apolitically murdered, and far more likely than that to be killed in a car accident, and far more likely than that to be killed by your own slovenliness or drug of choice or genetic quirk or disease. While the fact that there are worse and more prevalent things in the world does not mean we should not fight terrorism - of course we should - a sense of perspective should teach us, and teach us rapidly, that we do not need to cede our morality, or our rights; we do not need to become bigoted, or to quail, to torture or to fear or to hate in order to defeat the threat of terrorism. The mundane and pervasive is so much more dangerous than the rare and sensational by virtue of its ubiquity and yet we can suffer through our day to day lives without doing something dreadful to our fellow man.

Unlike Islamist terrorism the braying prayers of halfwits sent to racist demagogues who seek to place French democracy and her freedom of speech under a militaristic boot heel demonstrably have threatened French democracy before; have come very close indeed to killing it, and once more menace Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité. I feel roughly as much kinship with Islamist fundamentalists as I do European fascists. Neither have a very pretty track record when it comes to mass murder and terrorism, yet one is dramatically more popular than the other.

Also this.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

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